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New study reveals how COVID-19 variants may develop

Where will COVID-19 variants come from?

SHARE New study reveals how COVID-19 variants may develop
An image of the omicron variant.

Where will COVID-19 variants come from?

Illustration by Zoe Peterson, Deseret News

A new study from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa found that the novel coronavirus developed 21 different mutations in a South African woman who was inadequately treated for HIV and had dealt with the virus for nine months.

What happened next: The study — done by scientists from Stellenbosch and the University of KwaZulu-Natal — found the woman overcame her COVID-19 infection within six to nine weeks after taking anti-retroviral medication that helps treat HIV.

Why it matters: “The study adds to evidence that Covid-19 may mutate rapidly when harbored by immunosuppressed individuals, such as those not taking medication to treat HIV, and this may lead to the development of new variants,” according to Bloomberg.

  • “This case, like others before, describes a potential pathway for the emergence of novel variants,” the scientists said involved with the study said. “Our experience reinforces previous reports that effective anti-retroviral treatment is the key to controlling such events.”

The bigger picture: Scientists in South Africa have held a “highly plausible hypothesis” that COVID-19 variants — like the omicron variant — developed in people who had weakened immune systems, which wouldn’t allow people to shake off the virus.

  •  BBC News reports that viruses tended to live long in people who were HIV-positive and did not take medication.

The theory suggests that the coronavirus will linger inside of some immunocompromised people and develop mutations, becoming stronger.

  • “Normally your immune system would kick a virus out fairly quickly, if fully functional,” Linda-Gayle Bekker, a professor who leads the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa, told BBC News.
  • “In someone where immunity is suppressed, then we see virus persisting. And it doesn’t just sit around, it replicates. And as it replicates it undergoes potential mutations. And in somebody where immunity is suppressed that virus may be able to continue for many months — mutating as it goes,” she added.